Coronavirus: China resorts to 'wartime' measures in Wuhan, sparking fears city is being sacrificed for greater good

Death rate from virus in city is more than 20 times the average for rest of country

Amy Qin,Steven Lee Myers,Elaine Yu
Saturday 08 February 2020 15:46
Comments
Wuhan, epicentre of the virus' outbreak, has been under lockdown for weeks
Wuhan, epicentre of the virus' outbreak, has been under lockdown for weeks

Chinese authorities are resorting to increasingly extreme measures in Wuhan to try to halt the spread of the deadly coronavirus, ordering house-to-house searches, rounding up the sick and warehousing them in enormous quarantine centres.

The urgent, seemingly improvised steps come amid a worsening humanitarian crisis in Wuhan, one exacerbated by tactics that have left this city of 11 million with a death rate from the coronavirus of 4.1 per cent as of Thursday — staggeringly higher than the rest of the country’s rate of 0.17 per cent.

With the sick being herded into makeshift quarantine camps, with minimal medical care, a growing sense of abandonment and fear has taken hold in Wuhan, fuelling the sense that the city and surrounding province of Hubei are being sacrificed for the greater good of China.

The harsh new moves in Wuhan, the centre of the outbreak, clearly signalled the ruling Communist Party’s alarm that it had failed to gain control of the coronavirus epidemic, which has overwhelmed the country’s health care system and threatened to paralyse China, the world’s most populous country and second-largest economy.

The steps were announced by the top official leading the country’s response to the virus, vice premier Sun Chunlan, as she visited Wuhan on Thursday. They evoked images of the emergency measures taken to combat the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic that killed tens of millions people worldwide. Despite the severity of the new measures, however, they offered no guarantee of success.

The city and country face “wartime conditions”, Ms Sun said. “There must be no deserters, or they will be nailed to the pillar of historical shame forever.”

Enforcing the new restrictions took on aspects of a military campaign as Ms Sun ordered medical workers to mobilise into round-the-clock shifts to visit each home in Wuhan, check the temperature of all residents and interview close contacts of any infected patients.

Word of the new restrictions came as the people of Wuhan received an emotional gut punch from the news that a doctor who had warned of the outbreak in December — and was silenced by the police for it — had died from the coronavirus infection. The Wuhan City Central Hospital said in a posting on its social media account that its efforts to save the doctor, Li Wenliang, had failed.

“We deeply regret and mourn this,” the posting said.

Wuhan already had been basically shut down and isolated because of the contagion that began more than a month ago. The transport lockdown has made it difficult to restock dwindling medical supplies for the province’s more than 50 million people and has raised the possibility that food shortages may soon occur.

The new measures were announced two weeks after China barred people from leaving Wuhan, then expanded the restriction to cities in the central province of Hubei and now confines more than 50 million people — a containment of nearly unimaginable scope.

Still, the number of confirmed infections has doubled roughly every four days, afflicting more Chinese cities and towns, and experts have questioned whether the government’s actions are imposing undue hardship on people while doing little to slow the epidemic.

As of Friday, government figures showed the virus had killed at least 636 people and infected at least 31,161, and many believe those official statistics are far from complete. The fatality rate for Hubei province as a whole was 2.8 per cent as of Thursday.

Authorities have begun to direct patients in Wuhan to makeshift hospitals — including a sports stadium, an exhibition centre and a building complex — that are intended to house thousands of people. Inspecting one of the centres, set up in Hongshan Stadium, Ms Sun said that anyone requiring treatment should be rounded up, if necessary, and forced into quarantine.

“It must be cut off from the source,” she said of the virus, addressing city officials at the shelter, according to a Chinese news outlet, Modern Express. “You must keep a close eye. Don’t miss it.”

It was not clear how the already-strained facilities could handle an influx on the scale she seemed to suggest or whether the new shelters were equipped or staffed to provide even basic care to patients and protect against spreading the virus.

Photos taken inside the stadium showed narrow rows of simple beds separated only by desks and chairs typically used in classrooms. Some comments on Chinese social media compared the scenes with those from the Spanish flu pandemic, the deadliest in modern history.

China’s leader, Xi Jinping, called the epidemic “a major test of China’s system and capacity for governance”. But appearing with prime minister Hun Sen of Cambodia two days later, Mr Xi said the Chinese government’s efforts were “achieving positive results”.

Mr Xi did not make a public appearance on Thursday, apparently delegating the responsibility for the crisis to deputies, who all adopted the militaristic tone set by the People’s Daily this week when it described the campaign to contain the epidemic as a “people’s war.”

Even so, there were increasing signs that the restrictions on entering and leaving Hubei were slowing the resupply of medicines, protective masks and other necessities, despite pledges by Beijing and by private companies and charities that relief was en route.

“This is almost a humanitarian disaster because there are not sufficient medical supplies,” said Willy Wo-Lap Lam, an adjunct professor at the Centre for China Studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. “The Wuhan people seem to be left high and dry by themselves.”

Many medical experts believe that the number of those infected - and those who have died - is higher than the official count. Many Wuhan residents who are unwell but unsure whether they have the disease have been forced to go from hospital to hospital on foot, only to be turned away from even being tested for the virus, let alone treated.

Others wandered around in full protective clothing or with improvised safety measures, like plastic bags on their heads. Many have resorted to self-quarantine at home, risking the spread of the virus within families and neighbourhoods.

The epidemic has brought much of China to a virtual standstill, even far from Wuhan. Each day brings reports of more cities effectively sealed off, public events and gatherings cancelled through February or beyond, and schools preparing to postpone their post-Lunar New Year re-openings.

The effect also has spilled across China’s borders, despite the government’s frenetic efforts to respond to the epidemic while publicly portraying it as a manageable crisis. Nearly 200 infections with the virus have been confirmed in about two dozen other countries and territories, and two of the patients outside China have died.

Other countries have stepped up their own efforts to quarantine patients, including those on two cruise ships. Global corporations that depend on China’s huge market and supply chains are scrambling to deal with disruptions caused by the coronavirus, acknowledging how much they have come to count on the Chinese economy.

In Wuhan, the first concern is the humanitarian plight of a city beginning its third week in a state of siege. The confusion caused by sweeping calls for action at the top and a chaotic situation on the ground indicated that the Chinese government had not yet gotten a handle on the crisis

.

Wang Chen, a respiratory expert who is president of the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences, said the new makeshift treatment sites had been designed to counter transmissions within households and neighbourhoods.

“If a large number of patients with mild symptoms live at home or suspected patients roam around in the community, they will become the main source to spread the virus,” Mr Wang said, according to Xinhua News Agency.

A widely shared post on Weibo, a popular social media site, said that “conditions were very poor” at the Wuhan exhibition centre that has been converted into a quarantine facility. The writer, who said he had relatives in the shelter, cited power failures and problems with heating, saying people had to “shiver in their sleep”.

The post said there appeared to be shortages of staff and equipment. “Doctors and nurses were not seen to be taking note of symptoms and distributing medicine,” it said, and oxygen devices were “seriously lacking”.

With public anger simmering, the Communist Party has moved to stifle news organisations and social media platforms where criticism of the government’s initial response was for a time left uncensored online.

The New York Times

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Please enter a valid email
Please enter a valid email
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Please enter your first name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
Please enter your last name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
You must be over 18 years old to register
You must be over 18 years old to register
Opt-out-policy
You can opt-out at any time by signing in to your account to manage your preferences. Each email has a link to unsubscribe.

By clicking ‘Create my account’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

Comments

Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in